Webster woman reflects on a year of Ukraine war

Leonova shares her family’s experiences

When Taya Leonova considers the war going on in Ukraine right now, she feels a lot of emotions about the politics at play. But the predominant feeling she experiences is worry for her family who live there now. No matter political affiliation or beliefs, what she hopes people remember when watching the situation unfolding half a world away is the people.

Life in Ukraine is currently filled with the sounds of air raid sirens, martial law, bookshelves being used as barricades and life as it was before the Russia invasion and start of the war last February little more than a distant memory. Webster resident Leonova has had as close to a front row seat as one might get of what’s been happening there through her relationships with her uncle and grandmother who still live there. Leonova was born in Ukraine and moved to the United States when she was four years old. She last visited that country when she was 14.

The sights and sounds that come across the screen of her telephone on those occasions she is able to have video chats with her family are a far cry from what Leonova remembers. Once, when things had “mellowed out” between bombing, she said, her uncle took her on a “stroll” with video.

“I remembered it as a child,” Leonova said of Ukraine. Yet, she has a hard time reconciling the images of various bomb craters and collapsed buildings they show her with those childhood memories.

“The Ukraine I know is just so different,” she said. “Seeing the hospital I was born in bombed, an apartment building, a daycare center... The Ukraine I know is very vibrant with so much culture.”

Still, she said her family is trying to make the best of the situation.

Declining to give their names due to safety concerns, Leonova said her uncle is in his 50s and her grandmother is in her 80s and describes them both as “ungodly active.” They live in a city called Zhytomyr where they both try to take a daily walk and continue living their lives as best as they can. Leonova said they are healthy and doing as well as they could be under the circumstances.

“They know it is not ideal,” she said. “They’re trying to adjust to their new normal... Things have gotten better but it’s not where it should be.”

It’s not uncommon for Leonova to hear the whistling of a missile passing them by when they talk. She said they’ll respond by either listening for a moment and informing her that it has passed or by suddenly saying they have to go before ending the call.

“I could complain about a tough personal day, but they just keep going on,” she said.

The hardest for Leonova is when their internet gets knocked out and she isn’t able to get in touch for days or weeks at a time. She said three weeks has been the longest she’s gone without being able to get in touch. That stretch, and not knowing what was happening, she said was the toughest. Besides video calls, they are also able to send messages back and forth.

At the start of the war, Leonova said she was calling them every single day. They finally told her she needed to not worry so much and be sure to live her life too, Leonova said. She described them settling at a healthy level of communication now.

But no one expected the war to go on for as long as it has, according to Leonova.

“Ukraine and Russia are like brothers and sisters. There are families in both countries. I know a lot of Russian soldiers thought they were being sent for training,” she said. “At the end of the day, those are still people... They’re grandmas and daughters and moms.”

And no one knows how long it will last yet.

“That is a no-touch topic,” Leonova said. “It’s not that they avoid the subject so much as they jump over it. I don’t know if that comforts me or concerns me.”

Leonova’s uncle and grandma tend to cope with their situation with humor, she said.

“My grandma is one of the funniest people I know. She can crack jokes left and right,” Leonova said. “Simply talking to them helps her and my uncle feel better. Talking about a hopeful future so we can see one another again, happy memories and just checking up on them.”

Leonova said it seems they also try to do their best to avoid talking about what’s happening around them. Instead, Leonova’s grandmother and uncle want to hear about her life in Webster. In May, Leonova will have lived in Webster for two years. She is engaged to be wed to Jordan Bauer in September. She said her family is interested in the little details of her life and happiness.

“They’re so selfless,” Leonova commented. “I really admire how they can do that.”

Leonova says she feels helpless and that frustrates her. She’s unable to send care packages. If she could, Leonova said she would send embroidery and handmade items – something she and her grandmother share a love of – and she would also send pictures. Lots of pictures. And a handwritten note.

The support the local community has shown Leonova, she said, has not been unnoticed. She said the random comments from people about praying for her family and gently asking her how she’s doing, without prying, brings her comfort. One community member in particular – Julie Delaney – surprised her with a gift of a handcrafted quilt in blue and yellow, which are the colors of Ukraine. Leonova said she pulls the blanket tight when she’s feeling a particular need for comfort.

Leonova said there is one word which continually comes to her mind when she thinks of her family in Ukraine: Resilient.

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